Jaromíra Kostlánová – still working as a tour guide at the age of 92

Jaromíra Kostlánová

Though 92 years of age, Jaromíra Kostlánová is still working as a tour guide, introducing the sights of Prague to visitors from around the world. If that were not remarkable enough, the good-humoured nonagenarian is also one of the oldest students in the Czech Republic.

Jaromíra Kostlánová
I met Jaromíra Kostlánová on a break between classes at the old-school House of Culture by the capital’s Vltavská metro station. Many Czechs today regard the inter-war First Republic as a golden age; having been born in 1919 and lived through that period, would she concur?

“Not exactly. From a distance… so many years have passed, and they are a little bit mistaken about that. There were many people who didn’t have work, people were very poor. It wasn’t always as golden as they say – you have to take it from both sides. The rich were always richer and the poor were always poorer and poorer. That was the First Republic. Not everything that glitters is gold.”

The founder of Czechoslovakia was of course President T.G. Masaryk. Did you ever see Masaryk?

“Of course – several times. I was in Lány [location of presidential residence] and we were able to look through the railing and see him. He was very keen on horse-riding so we were always very enthusiastic when we saw the president on his horse. It was something.

“I even was there waiting when his bodily remains were brought from Prague to Lány on his final journey to the place where he was buried.”

A couple of years after that the war broke out and the Germans took over the whole of Bohemia and Moravia. What are your strongest memories of the war era?

Heydrich's car after the assassination,  photo: Bundesarchiv,  Bild 146-1972-039-44 / CC-BY-SA / Wikimedia Commons 3.0
“The assassination of [Nazi governor] Heydrich in 1942. It was a national disaster, it was something terrible. The next day a member of our family, the cousin of my father, who was working here at the ministry of agriculture and lived outside of Prague…he was coming by train to his work and was taken from Masaryk railway station to Kobylisy and shot.

“This was the first repression. They took all the people who were coming…they didn’t know why and what was going on. They even took all the property of the people who were shot – that’s how far it went. The repression was very hard and we suffered a lot.”

It must have been a fantastic day then when Prague was liberated in May, 1945.

“I celebrated that evening by the swimming pool with my husband. We opened a Californian compote and ate it, because it was something to celebrate. We had been keeping that box of compote throughout the Second World War. It was a celebration just to open it.”

This was some kind of preserved fruit or something?

“Yes.”

I presume after the war Czechoslovakia was a very different country.

February 1948  (the Communists took over)
“Of course, after 1948 [when the Communists took over] everything changed. We were hoping for the best but it didn’t reach our expectations. It was rather different from what we expected. So many people were in jail, so many people were shot, they lost their property, and so on.

“If you were not involved in doing something against [the regime], not much harm…But if you were brave enough to do something, you didn’t survive here.”

So you’re saying if you kept your head down, it was OK.

“It was OK. Not everybody was so strong as to work against it, because the repression was so high and if your life is in question, you always have to decide if it is worth it.”

Your husband worked for the World Health Organization. Were you in some sense privileged under the communist system?

“Not exactly. We were in Copenhagen for four years – it was the European headquarters of the WHO. But all the money we earned was going to the state and we got only part of it, to be able to pay our rent and food.

“But we did have the privilege of having a better life in general than people in our country, because in Denmark at that time they had everything.”

Flag of the WHO
What did you yourself do as a job? What was your job in those days?

“Nothing, we were not allowed to work, because it was a condition that the wife of a man who worked for the WHO was not allowed to work.”

But at some point you became a tour guide?

“Not at that time. I took courses in Danish and I passed the examinations. In the end I was glad that I did it, because it was very handy after I returned home. After I passed exams that were needed here in Prague I was able to use this language.”

Photo: Archive of Radio Prague
“But they mostly preferred to use English, because they had the same limitations as me, so understanding was very easy for both sides, for the Danish people and me.”

Did a lot of tourists come here in those days? Were the tour groups relatively closely watched by the authorities?

“At that time not many people came, because they didn’t dare, they were afraid. I remember they were afraid to speak with us, because they didn’t know who we were.”

Today you’re 92 years old and you’re still a tour guide. How do you find the energy for this work? It must be very demanding.

“I think it must be hereditary, because my mother was made the same way as I am. I don’t know. I was very keen on physical training and so on. And brain training. Up to today I am taking courses in memory training here at Vltavská.”

When you have a tour group do they know how old you are?

“They always say, you will be our example. We would like to last as long as you. Tell us the secret – how do you do it?”

So what is the secret?

“Nothing. To be active, don’t sit at home. Nowadays I only do that which I like. That is my credo. Because I don’t have much time, even if people are today living up to 104, we have ladies here [in the Czech Republic] who are 108, and I hope I shall last as long.”

But are the tour groups surprised? They must be surprised when they say your age.

“They are surprised, but they’re like a fan club – they’re just glad that I am able to do it.”

When you work, do you work every day, or…?

“You can imagine, at such an age I wouldn’t be able to do that. I take a tour for three days, and then I can rest for three or four days afterwards. I used to work in the morning and afternoon, without a break.”

“Only in the winter time we didn’t have so much work, because schools didn’t come in those days. Nowadays school groups come even in the winter time, so all the year we have enough to do, if we are able to do it.”

Do you ever think about retiring? I see for example that you have a walking stick.

“That isn’t a walking stick, that’s only a fashion accessory! Naturally I need a support, because sometimes I have to stand for a longer period to explain things. If you are walking, it doesn’t matter. But if you are standing and it sometimes takes two, three, four hours, and you never know how quickly the group will move…”

Is it the case – as I’ve read – that you are the oldest student in the Czech Republic?

Charles University
“It seems so. There have been some articles in the newspapers saying I am the oldest guide and student of the University of the Third Age. It’s part of Charles University and is paid by the state.”

You were telling me earlier that your daughter lives in California and that you spend time there every year. Do you like spending time in America?

“Of course. It’s very easy for me. They have a very well equipped house and I don’t need to do shopping, cooking, washing – everything is done for me. So I only enjoy life. I go to the seaside, I bathe and do everything that is pleasant.”